Category Archives: Blog
Kerry Magro is one of my favorite advocates. I always go to his sites and feeds for insights and suggestions about media related to autism. As a result, I wanted to share a link to his list of 10 films that are instructive and enlightening rather than stigmatizing. Watch and learn.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been bombarded with all things Fifty Shades of Grey (Taylor-Johnson, Marcel, & James, 2015). The buzz has been unavoidable as has the debate about whether or not the film and the books (James, 2011) are “good” for women and girls. I find myself in a very strange place within this conversation. I am a person who is clearly in the target market for the books and the film; the term poster child might be appropriate. I am white, middle-class, female, heterosexual, and well over thirty. People like me have bought millions and millions of copies of the Fifty Shades books (there are 3) and the film version of the first book in the series seems poised to redefine the term blockbuster. I am also a parent of two girls, 16 and 12, who I want to see grow up independent, strong, and capable. I also hope they fall in love and have wonderful, fulfilling relationships defined on their own terms. Finally, I unashamedly self-identify as a feminist with clearly feminist values.
Have I read all the books? Yes. Quite some time ago, a colleague said something on the order of, “No woman who respects herself would be caught dead reading that shit”. As a grown woman who does respect herself, I don’t like to be told what I should and should not do so I read the books. I read a lot of escapist detective fiction (I’ve read all of the In Death books by J. D. Robb aka Nora Roberts) to get out of my own head and avoid any and all critical thinking, so it wasn’t that big a stretch for me. Have I seen the film? No. None of my friends are interested. I’m not likely to take my husband either because I would probably embarrass him by drooling over Jamie Dornan’s Irish deliciousness despite my being old enough to be his mother. I’ll wait for Netflix.
Am I going to allow anyone to put me in their shame box for reading the books? No. And I won’t let anyone say I can’t be a “real” feminist for consuming such material. Did I like the books? Sometimes, but I think that’s because I kept imagining a film version being shown Rocky Horror style with a live cast on stage loads of audience participation. The writing is truly awful. It began as Twilight (Meyer, 2005) fan fiction after all. I found the story arc across the books familiar and predictable although at times the conversations between main characters were very funny (especially the emails). Like a lot of low quality, written porn/erotica, the sex is vividly unrealistic in quality and quantity but the descriptions could, for some people, be entertaining … or instructive. I found the scenes involving the use of restraints, toys, and other BDSM (Bondage and Discipline; Sadism and Masochism) objects occasionally troubling but not shocking. I know enough about BDSM in the real world (I taught a human sexuality course for many years so I am essentially unshockable) to know that the story is not an accurate reflection of people in that community and that it is in many ways very misleading particularly with respect to who participates (the stereotype that only broken people would do it is inaccurate) and how consent is managed in BDSM sex.
The story is very, very old: damaged, dangerous, wealthy young man traumatized by abuse, neglect and abandonment meets young, innocent, book-loving, introverted girl who is barely scraping by. Christian admits he’s completely screwed up (“fifty shades of fucked up” is his self-description) and he has been working with his current psychiatrist for two years. His birth mother was a drug addict and prostitute whose pimp brutally abused him leaving him scarred and unable to tolerate being touched. His mother died when he was 4 and he was found by police after spending several days with her corpse. He has nightmares reliving this experience. While his adoptive family was loving and supportive, he was introduced to sex and BDSM in a completely inappropriate way at 15 by an adult woman who used him as a submissive for several years and later allowed him to be a dominant. For most of the story, he doesn’t think there was anything wrong with their sexual relationship which only ended when her husband found out. Essentially, Christian’s strategy for dealing with his past has been to have highly structured, contractual, “relationships” with experienced women who have chosen to be submissive to him. He sees himself as depraved, undeserving of the love of others, and incapable of giving love in return. At the same time, he is obsessively protective of the women with whom he’s been involved taking care of some of them after their sexual involvement has ended. Eventually, Christian, who has never been with anyone who challenged him before, becomes desperate to fundamentally change who he is so he can be with Ana. He’s willing to go straight vanilla if that’s what it takes.
Anastasia (“Ana”) is bright, open-minded, shy, and quick-witted. She loves reading Brit-lit and wants to work in publishing. She is compassionate and forgiving. She is also strong, stubborn, resilient, and courageous. Still, she does not see herself as attractive, certainly not attractive enough for someone like Christian. There are several male characters other than Christian who are presented as being very attracted to her but she is uninterested in anything but friendships with them. She is inexperienced in life and has never had sex. She willingly has sex with Christian but his vast repertoire and atypical lifestyle leaves her always one down in power in their sexual interactions. Despite this, she is very open to sexual experimentation and genuinely enjoys rough sex. She doesn’t want to be punished for disobedience, however. Ana routinely stands up to Christian never becoming his submissive. She doesn’t sign either the original or modified contract and they eventually dispense with the rules entirely. Nevertheless, she remains fearful of his anger and hopelessly enraptured. Ultimately, she wants romance and love and she gets it in the end.
Am I oblivious to the misogynistic aspects of the Fifty Shades story? No. Do the books romanticize and legitimize violence against women? In some very obvious and troubling ways, yes. Christian is at times verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive to Ana. He threatens to punish her constantly but she falls in love with him anyway. He stalks her, he invades her privacy in egregious and probably illegal ways, and he wants to control her every move ostensibly for her protection and pleasure. Most importantly, he wants to dominate her sexually and punish her physically when she defies him or breaks his rules. To be clear, Christian originally pursues his bizarre version of a contractual Dom/Sub relationship with Ana as the submissive who consents to being obedient and willingly accepts punishment when she’s not. That contractual relationship never happens and his abusiveness slowly diminishes across the series.
In some ways Christian is downright progressive. To be blunt, in the books at least, Christian asks Ana for affirmative verbal consent to sex and specific sex acts more times than any man has ever asked me. She is not restrained or struck without giving broad consent although she usually doesn’t fully understand what she is consenting to. For example, she consents to going into the Red Room in a submissive role but doesn’t know exactly what Christian is going to do to her. To make matters worse, she does not fully comprehend the concept of safewords and her responsibility for using them when they start engaging in more intense BDSM sex. Her lack of experience leaves her vulnerable and the fact that Christian has never been with anyone without at least an equivalent level of experience to his own means he over-assumes her competency to consent. The issue of Christian punishing her when she defies him causes Ana to leave him after she agrees to try being punished (he hits her with a leather belt six times making her count aloud) and finds the experience and Christian’s role in it horrifying. After they reunite in Fifty Shades Darker, he works toward changing himself for her and she commits to making him love himself. Everyone, including Christian’s psychiatrist thinks she is the one who is healing his tortured soul and Ana refers repeatedly to bringing Christian into the light. It makes me wonder if the E. L. James knew that the name Anastasia comes from the Greek for “resurrection” (Anastasia, 2015).
The critical issue is Christian’s desire/need/compulsion to punish Ana when she’s disobedient, why he thinks he needs to do so (because he wants to punish women who look like his dead, neglectful mother), and the sexual gratification he gets from the act (I know, I know. It’s so nauseatingly Oedipal). That is only one of many offensive elements in the story for me as a psychologist. It’s also offensive to those who choose for healthy and fully appropriate reasons to engage in ethical BDSM sexual interactions and relationships. Not surprisingly, his need to punish her and his refusal in the first book to tell her why is the thing that Ana can’t ignore. Unfortunately, the main reason she’s bothered by it isn’t that she thinks what he wants to do to her is wrong (she does think it’s wrong, by the way). Instead, her biggest issue is that she believes he will eventually leave her because she can’t fulfill his sexual needs. She laments not being able to be what she thinks he needs and that he can’t give her what she wants (love and romance). Yes, we should all be very, very bothered by the fact that through most of the book series she sees herself as not good enough for him because she doesn’t want him to cane or whip her when she misbehaves.
All of this offends my feminist sensibilities and my need to raise my daughters without delusional beliefs about re-socializing violent, psychologically damaged men. That’s hard to do when we, as a culture, continue to encourage girls and women to see themselves as the emotional saviors of troubled men and we persist in encouraging boys and men to see themselves as dominant protectors who keep girls and women safe by controlling them. All this teaches girls/women is that they need to put up with abusive, emotionally immature men until they get them to reveal their secrets (usually by trading sex or marriage for them) which will free them from their demons. All it teaches boys/men is that their sexual and other needs have primacy over those of women, that they need girls/women to be their emotional surrogates, and that they are solely responsible for protecting their partners by force if necessary.
But Fifty Shades is not the problem nor is it a new problem; we are the problem because we are complicit in the story’s perpetual retelling. Complicit? Is that what I just said? Yes. Because the problem isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey; Fifty Shades just makes it painfully obvious that the “love” stories we tell and have been telling ourselves and our children for hundreds and hundreds of years have been cut from the same cloth. Like most women in American culture, I have been fed a steady diet of idealized, stereotype-laden, sexist romance stories from the start. Like me, my girls, whether I want them to or not, have been exposed to their own banquet of demeaning romantic narratives. So, what am I trying to say about our collective complicity? Specifically, I believe that, if we choose to criticize and reject Fifty Shades of Grey for its misogyny and glorification of the abuse and subjugation of women, we should do the same for other books and films built on the very same skeleton, many of which have been written for and aggressively marketed to our very, very young daughters.
Take, for example, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale & Wise, 1991) which follows a root narrative with which we are all very comfortable and which is the template for Fifty Shades. Beauty and the Beast is based on a traditional French fairy tale (La Belle et la Bête by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont) which dates back to the 1700s. Beauty and the Beast premiered in 1991 was immediately successful. It was recently announced that UN Women Goodwill Ambassador (ironic, no?) and Harry Potter heroine Emma Watson has been cast as Belle in the Disney live-action version scheduled to begin filming some time later this year (McNary, 2015). Waston’s announcement on her Facebook page shows her affection for the story and its place in her childhood:
I’m finally able to tell you… that I will be playing Belle in Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast! It was such a big part of my growing up, it almost feels surreal that I’ll get to dance to ‘Be Our Guest’ and sing ‘Something There.’ My six year old self is on the ceiling – heart bursting. (McNary, 2015, ¶ 4)
Obviously, Beauty and the Beast is a story that we value and my suggesting that it is the framework on which Fifty Shades was constructed will likely get me labeled some kind of culture-terrorist (my 16-year-old became apoplectic when I made the comparison). That’s never stopped me before so here goes. The Beast is a man who was cursed by an enchantress as a child because he refused to give her shelter in his castle. He is to remain a horrible beast until he is loved by and loves another selflessly. He is wealthy and has a magical castle and a loyal staff. He is immature, brutish, and very, very angry. He has no problem locking people up for minor transgressions and using them to get what he wants. Belle is a kind, beautiful, book-loving, young woman who values her independence and is committed to her eccentric father. Belle’s father is imprisoned by the Beast and Belle trades herself for his release. She attempts to adjust to her situation and works to understand her captor. She disobeys him at times and stands up to him despite being afraid of his anger. Over time, Belle warms to Beast and he is transformed into a prince when she declares her love for him.
One Disney wiki contributor describes their situation this way:
All seems hopeless until fate brings Belle into his world. Angry and despairing due to his long enchantment, the Beast tries to capture Belle’s love with fear, not kindness. Then slowly, through her courage and compassion, he begins to discover the secrets of his own heart and learns that even a beast can be loved. (Beast, n.d., ¶ 1)
Beauty is described on her official Disney princess page in this way:
Belle’s name means beauty, but she often stands out in town because she loves to read. She dreams of adventure in the great wide somewhere and believes there is good in everyone, even the Beast. (Belle, n.d., ¶ 1)
Try reading those paragraphs after replacing Beast with Christian, Belle with Ana, enchantment with abuse, and beauty with resurrection or rebirth. Sound familiar? It should. In fact, when you put the stories side by side, they are disturbingly similar. I found 22 obvious similarities (see obsessive Table 1 and equally obsessive images in Figure 1). Frankly, it’s not that hard to imagine the Beast with a flogger and a Red Room of Pain instead of a magic rose and a West Wing given that he has taken a 17-year-old girl into servitude against her will in exchange for her father’s freedom. By chance, I found the image to the right when searching for screenshots from both films to identify parallel images (Rees, 2015). It was posted on the Cosmopolitan webpage on February 11, 2015 during the Fifty Shades of Grey run up before Valentine’s Day. It seems I’m not the only one who noticed the parallel story. Maybe that’s one reason why so many middle-aged women have bought the books. The story reminded them of the Disney classic their daughters made them watch a thousand times in the 1990s, the musicals their high schools put on, and all the other films and books they’ve watched and read that are based on the same archetypal structure. Hang some kinky sex on the fairy tale and it is gold.
Many organizations and individuals have been highly critical of Fifty Shades (e.g., Katz, 2015). I don’t disagree with most of their arguments. At the same time, denying our collective attraction to the base narrative is at best naïve. As Jonathan Gottschall (2013) put it, “[w]e are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories” (Preface, ¶ 9). Until we own our cultural obsession with pretty young women subjecting themselves to dangerous situations to save damaged violent men (make no mistake; that is exactly what Belle did), we will get nowhere. While exquisitely vile in her own right, Cersei Lanister said it quite well, “[e]verywhere in the world, they hurt little girls” (MacLaren & Martin, 2014). If we want that to stop, we need to change the root narrative and start dreaming different dreams about boys and girls and falling in love.
Side by side comparison of plot points in Beauty and the Beast and Fifty Shades of Grey
|1||The Prince is young (21) and wealthy. He lives in a castle. He has lots of loyal staff.||Christian is young (27) and wealthy. He lives in the penthouse of an exclusive apartment building. He has lots of loyal staff.|
|2||A beautiful Enchantress goes to the castle in disguise asking the Prince, who is a child (11), for shelter. The Prince refuses and she punishes him for his unkindness by turning him into a Beast.||Beautiful, older Elena takes advantage of 15 year old, troubled Christian when he’s working for her after he is rude to her. She pulls him into an inappropriate, abusive sexual relationship. He becomes a monster.|
|3||Beast has to learn to love and receive love to be freed from the curse. He has never been in love.||Christian has to learn to love and accept love to be truly happy. He has never been in love.|
|4||Belle/Beauty loves books, is smart, and is close to her father. She is young (17), beautiful, and poor. She is sometimes lonely because she has few friends. She has never been in love.||Ana/Anastasia loves books, is smart, and is close to her step-father. She is young (21), beautiful, and not wealthy. She is sometimes lonely because she has few friends. She has never been in love.|
|5||Belle is confronted with the unwanted advances of the brutish Gaston. She refuses him and defends herself pushing him through a door.||Ana is confronted with the unwanted advances Hyde. She refuses him and defends herself by using a finger hold and kneeing him in the groin.|
|6||After imprisoning her father, Beast offers Belle a deal: her servitude for his freedom. There are rules including that she can never leave. He hopes to convince her to love him.||After he allows Ana to interview him for the school paper, Christian attempts to negotiate a contractual Dom/Sub relationship with her. There are lots and lots of creepy rules.|
|7||Beast gives Belle her own room.||Christian gives Ana her own room.|
|8||Beast wants Belle to eat with him. Dinner and dancing happen.||Christian is obsessed with Ana eating. Dinner, drinking and dancing happen. Repeatedly.|
|9||Beast is easily enraged.||Christian is very easily enraged.|
|10||Belle breaks the rules and fears Beast’s reaction.||Ana breaks the rules and fears Christian’s reaction.|
|11||Both Beast and Belle are stubborn.||Both Christian and Ana are stubborn.|
|12||Beast loses control and Belle runs away.||Christian loses control and Ana breaks up with him.|
|13||Beast gives Belle a library filled with books.||Christian gives Ana the library at Escala plus access to a British Literature library on an iPad.|
|14||Belle warms to Beast despite fearing him and decides to help him.||Ana falls in love with Christian despite fearing him. She decides to help him.|
|15||Beast sees hope in Belle.||Christian says Ana gives him hope of something more.|
|16||Beast gives Belle magical gifts.||Christian gives Ana over the top gifts (helicopter ride, glider ride, iPad, BlackBerry, Audis, Mac…).|
|17||Beast limits Belle’s contact with people outside the castle but eventually gives her more access to her family.||Christian limits Ana’s time with friends but he eventually gives her more freedom to be with them (although he believes it endangers her).|
|18||Gaston goes after Beast intending to kill him.||Hyde goes after Christian and Ana intending to kill them.|
|19||Beast becomes hopeless and bereft when he thinks he has lost Belle forever.||Christian completely falls apart when Ana walks out on him.|
|20||Belle has a humanizing effect on Beast becoming more kind and giving him the ability to better control his temper even refraining from killing Gaston when he has the chance.||Ana humanizes/normalizes Christian. His family members repeatedly say that they have never seen him as he is with her. He starts to be able to control his temper even refraining from killing Hyde.|
|21||Belle’s declaration of love transforms Beast and frees him from the curse.||When Christian acknowledges that he truly is loved by Ana and his family, his belief that he is hopelessly depraved recedes.|
|22||They live happily ever after.||Christian and Ana marry and have children and lots of fantastic, kinky sex. Ana calls it her “happily ever after”.|
Figure 1. Parallel images in Beauty and the Beast and Fifty Shades of Grey
Anastasia. (2015). Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anastasia
Beast. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Beast
Belle. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://princess.disney.com/belle
Gottschall, J. (2013). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com
James, E. L. (2011). Fifty Shades of Grey: The fifty shades trilogy (Vintage eBook Edition). New York: Vintage Books.
Katz, J. (2015). Fifty Shades of Grey and the sexual (mis)education of boys. Huffington Post. Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/fifty-shades-of-grey-and-the-miseducation-of-boys_b_6700378.html
MacLaren, M. (Director), & Martin, G. R. R. (Writer). (2014). First of his name [Television series episode]. Game of Thrones. United States: HBO.
McNary, D. (2015). Emma Watson cast as Belle in Disney’s live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Variety. Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://variety.com/2015/film/news/emma-watson-belle-beauty-beast-disney-live-action-1201415167/
Meyer, S. (2005). Twilight. New York: Little Brown and Company.
Rees, A. (2015). If Disney couples starred in “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Retrieved February 20, 2015 from http://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/movies/news/a36375/if-disney-couples-starred-in-fifty-shades-of-grey/
Taylor-Johnson, S. (Director), Marcel, K. (Screenwriter), & James, E. L. (Author). (2015). Fifty Shades of Grey [Motion picture]. United States: Focus Features.
Tousdale, G. (Director), & Wise, K. (Director). (1991). Beauty and the Beast [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
The sixth of the Twelve Principles of Attitudinal Healing outlined by Jampolsky (2000) is that “we can learn to love ourselves and others by forgiving rather than judging. Forgiveness is the way to true health and happiness When we choose to see everyone as a teacher of forgiveness, each moment gives us an opportunity for happiness, peace, and love” (p. 119).
I’ll be the first to admit that I have been an absolute failure at forgiveness. My teenager is fond of saying, “now don’t be bitter, Mom” when I ruminate about having been wronged by someone. It’s so irritating when they’re right. And so reassuring.
At present, I, like most people I know, have been struggling with feeling pressured, pulled, pushed, and contorted by life. I’ve also been nearly overwhelmed by the pain and suffering being experienced by people I care for. There just seems to be too much loss and heartache and suffering everywhere right now. Given my lifelong struggle with depressive illness, being exposed to so much negative emotional energy can put me at risk of relapse so finding ways to work with pain is very important for me and the people who live with me. For most of my life, I have reacted to painful energy in one of two ways: avoidance or complete immersion. Avoidance has taken the form of attempting to push painful energy out of awareness or deny its existence entirely. This is just about as effective as telling yourself to stop thinking about the dripping faucet that is keeping you awake. When the “don’t think about the bear” strategy has failed, as it always does, I have often turned to distracting habits that in and of themselves aren’t particularly growth-promoting or healthy.
In contrast to the avoidance strategy, I’ve also tended toward immersing myself in my own pain and that of others in an attempt to know it so well that it will somehow grant me some kind of wisdom. I’ve tried to acquire the practice of sitting with pain and, while there have been moments of peaceful awareness, I have not learned enough to make this work for me. I just end up drowning.
As a person who has chosen to avoid any particular religious stance (sometimes aggressively so), it has been a challenge to find a context for studying spiritual and emotional growth generally and for allowing my own growth to unfold. Mostly, I just want to find some peace. Studying and practicing mindfulness meditation has recently provided me with a method that, with increasing reliability, allows me to experience pain with authenticity and awareness rather than avoiding it or allowing it to drown me.
There are a couple of practices that I have been using that are helping me to continue to grow. The first is the practice of Metta meditation (Loving-kindness meditation). Even a brief internet search will lead you to numerous explanations and versions of Metta meditation. What they have in common is a progressive movement from loving-kindness directed at self, to others (including those perceived as “difficult”, and finally toward all beings. One description is available on the Metta Institute webpage. As described there, the practice involves repeating expressions of loving-kindness beginning with “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.”
“May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.”
Remember that forgiveness begins in your own heart. The practice continues with directing these same expressions toward others including friends, family, acquaintances, groups, and even people with whom you have grievances. The phrases are altered by replacing “I” with “you”. Finally, self and other are united by directing loving-kindness to all beings saying “May we be happy. May we be well. May we be safe. May we be peaceful and at ease.”
“May we be happy. May we be well. May we be safe. May we be peaceful and at ease.”
By the time I work through the progression, I usually feel a calm sense of belonging and connection. Sometimes, however, the practice opens the door to painful emotions particularly when directing loving-kindness to individuals with whom I have had difficulties. I am learning to take this experience as an opportunity to acknowledge grudges that are still being held and are therefore holding me back. I loop back to the beginning and direct loving-kindness to myself before returning to the person with whom I associate pain. That association is what needs to weaken for forgiveness to be acknowledged. Some versions of Metta meditation are complicated and long while others are not. I’m a pragmatist. I do what works for me. I even use a short version during my 5 minutes of walking warm-up while riding my horses. I also work through the progression while drawing Zentangles on my iPad.
I sometimes use guided meditations as well. I have a messy, chatty mind and it helps to have another voice to provide structure. I’m very fond of Tara Brach’s guided meditations, for example. In the last week, though, I have been turning to Thich Nhat Hanh’s reading of The End of Suffering often, particularly at night.
May the sound of this bell penetrate deep into the cosmos
Even in the darkest spots living beings are able to hear it clearly
So that all suffering in them ceases, understanding comes to their heart
And they transcend the path of sorrow and death.
The universal dharma door is already open
The sound of the rising tide is heard clearly
The miracle happens
A beautiful child appears in the heart of the lotus flower
One single drop of this compassionate water is enough to bring back the refreshing spring to our mountains and rivers.
Listening to the bell I feel the afflictions in me begin to dissolve
My mind calm, my body relaxed
A smile is born on my lips
Following the sound of the bell, my breath brings me back to the safe island of mindfulness
In the garden of my heart, the flowers of peace bloom beautifully.
And so I continue to learn forgiveness.
I am now halfway through my 20th year of being a college professor. You might think, after so many years, that I would have acquired a whole load of wisdom about how best to motivate students and nurture them as they move toward their goals. If I had the time to think about it, I probably have acquired some insights about teaching and learning that serve my students well. At this time of year, though, I’m not thinking about such lofty things as teaching philosophy or educational theory. I’m fantasizing about sending Howlers.
For all of you who are not fans of the Harry Potter books and films, a Howler is a magical letter which, in the most deliciously animated way, chastises the recipient in the writer’s own voice. For those who have seen a Howler in action, enjoy it again; for those who have not, enjoy your first introduction here. Just click on poor Ron who has gotten a Howler from his deeply disappointed mother.
Since Thanksgiving, I have done very little other than provide feedback on student writing. I am not fond of rote memorization in my upper level classes. As a result, I assign a lot of written work. One very effective way that people learn is through writing. In my Movies & Madness class, there are no exams. There are instead many different kinds of writing assignments. I expect students to write and revise and revise some more to hone their writing skills while they are learning to apply what they are being exposed to in class. Important in this process, however, is an essential skill: the writer needs to respond to feedback in a meaningful and constructive way.
One of the papers students in Movies & Madness write is a Film Analysis Essay. The task is for them to select a film and develop theme-based arguments concerning the impact of the film’s content related to mental illness on the individuals who see it and on culture in general. In other words, what messages does the film send to the viewer about mental illness and its treatment and what larger impact might this have? The most popular films among students continue to be films such as Fight Club (Fincher, 1999), The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991), A Beautiful Mind (Howard, 2001), and Shutter Island (Scorsese, 2010). Unfortunately, students sometimes approach these films in a way that leads them down a dead end street.
Here’s a common example. With Fight Club, students are frequently tempted to frame their papers with an argument that the film accurately presents Dissociative Identity Disorder. The dead end street usually takes the form of looking at whatever version of the DSM criteria comes up first in a Google search and scanning for evidence in the film that confirms their argument. Let me repeat the critical part of that: they only look for confirmatory evidence to support their hypotheses. What they have not learned to do is look for disconfirming evidence. If the criteria is two or more identities, they see two characters who are eventually revealed to be parts of the same person. Boom. That’s one confirming point. The next criteria is that the identities alternately take control. That seems to fit. Boom. The next criteria is not remembering personal information. The Narrator does seem clueless about what’s been going on. Boom again. At this point, I’ve had more than one student argue that the film is actually educational. That’s when I want to send the first Howler (because I say in class at the beginning of every term that Fight Club isn’t an accurate presentation of anything other than men being wonderfully violent). Apparently, some students take that as a personal challenge to show me up. They clearly haven’t learned that rookies shouldn’t try to show up the person calling balls and strikes. That tends to make umpires cranky, if not vengeful.
What happens next is that I give feedback explaining for example that, while there are two identities apparently inhabiting the Narrator, having them interact and have fist fights is inaccurate. Ergo, the argument that the presentation is accurate is false. When the revised draft comes back (sadly, students rarely come see me to talk through their papers), the spelling and grammar are usually corrected but the argument is only adjusted usually through the use of a tacked on statement (e.g., “While it is somewhat unrealistic to have the Narrator interact with Tyler in this way, the film still shows two very distinct personalities”). Cue Howler number 2. My Ph.D. is obviously no match for the power of confirmatory evidence.
This is a bad thinking habit not unique to students. We all do it. The difference is that, in order for them to meet the learning objectives of the course, I need my students to break out of their habitual pattern of accepting as true whatever seems right enough and then arguing, despite feedback to the contrary, that they are still right(ish). Students are particularly prone to arguing that films are accurate representations of mental illnesses when they have enjoyed them. For some reason, finding fault in something that they had fun watching creates too much dissonance for them to to do anything other than say nice things about what they’ve seen. I enjoyed Fight Club. I did. I especially liked seeing Brad Pitt in that girlie bathrobe. That doesn’t stop me from being able critically evaluate what I see in terms of mental illness content.
So, while dreaming of sending perfect Howlers to students who can’t seem to tolerate being told things they don’t want to hear, I will continue to provide feedback filled with disconfirming evidence and hope to bring them around eventually. Thankfully, I’ve learned to save the usual comments in a document so I can cut and paste. Saves loads of time. A Howler would be so much more gratifying, though.
NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER FOR
MENTAL ILLNESS RECOVERY AND UNDERSTANDING
Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 of Mental Illness Awareness Week
The University of Mount Union is having a Glow Stick Vigil at the Dewald Chapel at 8:30 tonight recognizing the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding
The National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding has been designated as the Tuesday of Mental Illness Awareness Week, which is the first full week in October. This year, the date is Oct. 9, 2012. Mental illness networks and faith leaders are urged to work together so that they may recognize and prepare for this day in a way that works best for each faith community. The prayers and actions of both faith communities and secular organizations (e.g. the National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Mental Health Association, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation, Anxiety Disorders Association of America, etc.) are needed to restore mental wellness in America. By seeking God’s guidance we can recommit ourselves to replacing misinformation, blame, fear and prejudice with truth and love in order to offer hope to all who are touched by mental illness.
From the UMU website…
ALLIANCE, Ohio — Randye Kaye, author of Ben Behind His Voice: One Family’s Journey from the Chaos of Schizophrenia to Hope, discussed mental health awareness on Wednesday, October 3 at the University of Mount Union.
Kaye’s lecture was presented by Mount Union’s Department of Psychology.
Many times people only hear of extreme cases of schizophrenia and automatically associate schizophrenia with murderers, but Kaye’s book shines a light on those who live with schizophrenia and live successful lives. Kaye hopes to replace stigma with respect and empathy and shed a light on families becoming partners. Kaye shared that one in four families struggle with mental illness in a loved one.
According to Kaye, families go through trauma and live through stages of acceptance. Through sharing Ben’s story, she outlined the steps she took and when she finally realized he had a serious mental illness. Kaye recommended NAMI, National Alliance of Mental Illness, for families to get information. That was where Kaye received education about her son and what steps to take to towards his recovery.
“Recovery is not just medication,” Kaye stated.
Kaye articulated that families are a large part in recovery and what they need when they are faced with mental illness through the acronym, S.E.A.R.C.H. SEARCH stands for support, education, acceptance, resilience, communication skills and hope and humor.
Kaye encouraged the audience to give hope to families and encouraged the families who are facing a similar story to be there for their loved one.
Patience is not now and just may never be a strong part of my skill set. I’ve never been patient. I hate waiting. I get remarkably irritable remarkably quickly when I have to wait under circumstances that just don’t make sense to me. If the waiting was unexpected or seems to be the product of someone’s negligence or ill will, I’m even less tolerant of waiting. My husband has had to adjust to my lack of patience during our years together. For example, when I ask him to help me with a task, say removing the stump left over after I have hacked down an unattractive shrub, I mean right now. In his head, when he says “Sure. I’ll help you with that” he means sometime in the indefinite future. He’s then shocked when he finds me angrily hacking away at said stump. He might say something like, “I said I’d do it?” To which I may respond, usually inside my head, “In what century?”
I have even more difficulty when there is a problem that clearly needs to be solved but doing so can’t be done quickly if at all. In my life with horses, I’ve faced my share of patience challenges and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve failed at most of them. We’re facing a patience challenge right now with our new horse. We found Tru just this spring (on April 2nd) and we were just settling in with him when he came up limping on his left front leg (on May 19th). I’ve heard it said hundreds of times that horses are incredibly strong but also very, very fragile. Still, we assumed he would recover quickly and we could all get back to work as the show season was kicking into gear. Well, that hasn’t been the case. After the first few days with no improvement, we had him examined by the vet. We know that the pain is in his heel but x-rays (traditional and digital) failed to tell us specifically what’s wrong. We were relieved that the dreaded navicular had been ruled out. The vet recommended corrective shoeing after noting that his feet were flatter than ideal. Our farrier made the recommended changes. There was no effect. The vet suggested stall rest and anti-inflammatory medication. While he looked better on the meds, as soon as he was off them, he went back to limping. The simpler and more easily resolved problems having been dismissed, my brain went fairly quickly to catastrophe mode. It didn’t help that I researched everything the vet mentioned as a possibility on the internet. Look up injuries to deep digital flexor tendons and collateral ligaments of the hoof and you will quickly find yourself drowning in pessimism. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three weeks. Googling every dire scenario and dissolving into tears with each new horrendous possibility.
As of tomorrow, it will have been a month. That’s a long time. We’ve now been referred to a specialist possibly for an MRI. No, Tru doesn’t have insurance and I, unlike Mitt Romney and his dressage horse, am not a member of the one-percent. I was thinking about all of this while hand walking a stir-crazy thousand pound Quarter Horse during a thunder-storm. I decided that I had two choices, start sobbing again over how unfair it is that our fun summer with our new horse wasn’t going to happen or practice some walking meditation and get some perspective. I focused on my breathing and the sounds of Tru walking. We walked and I breathed. My oldest was riding our other horse Cooper who was being his usual irritating self. I decided to let her deal with it herself. We kept walking and I kept breathing.
If you do a Google search of the word patience you will eventually end up reading several blog posts which reflect on the 15th verse of the Tao Te Ching:
Do you have the patience to wait till your mud
settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
I still don’t know what’s wrong with Tru’s foot but I’ll just need to wait until the mud settles and the answers arise on their own.
Tru’s response to our walking meditation? As soon as we stopped, he flopped down on the ground right next to me to roll in the dirt of the indoor arena. Horses…
Oak Grove Middle School Band, a remedial band for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder … so all of their tunes were extremely short.
We are a family dominated by our routines. One of those is being dedicated public radio listeners (we are members of WKSU in Kent, Ohio). Our Saturdays often move along to a soundtrack including Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me and This American Life. We frequently find ourselves listening to A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday evenings during dinner. The kids have been known to burst out laughing at times although I admit that their eyes do glaze over when there’s an opera singer on the show. This weekend was different in that we were scattered about the county but I did listen to part of the show while driving. Guy Noir was on but instead of enjoying the piece as I usually do, I was horrified by it. I was troubled by it as a mental health advocate and researcher. I was also troubled by it as the parent of a child with ADHD.
The bit involves Guy Noir as a chaperone for the “Oak Grove Middle School Band, a remedial band for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder… so all of their tunes were extremely short.” Remedial? What year is this? One of the strongest myths associated with ADHD/ADD is that such people are stupid or lazy or both. These myths can be magnified when school or work performance is impacted negatively or when kids (and adults) behave impulsively. “Children with ADHD have been called troublemakers and spoiled brats, and undiagnosed adults may go through life labeled lazy or dumb” (Common myths, 2010, para. 3). Since ADHD/ADD is so strongly associated with children, particularly males, the stigma can be even more intense for girls and adults (Sherman, 2003). Hinshaw argues that:
[s]tigmatization can be difficult for anyone who has ADHD, but the burden falls more heavily on girls and young women. People continue to think of ADHD as an exclusively male problem. According to this stereotype, if a girl exhibits common ADHD traits, there must really be something wrong with her. Something similar may be operating with adults. Since ADHD is commonly thought of as a childhood disorder, adults who have it, or claim to have it, come under suspicion. The thinking seems to be, “Either you made it up to compensate for the failures in your life, or there’s something very wrong with you” (Sherman, 2003, para. 9-10).
Guy is with the band because he’s broke and his niece plays clarinet with them. She is presented as a self-absorbed, snotty, and negative child with a partially shaved head and a tattoo which serves to reinforce the bratty troublemaker stereotype of kids with ADD/ADHD. This goes hand in hand with the myth that all these children really need is better parenting and more discipline not to mention the belief that they just need to try harder (Common myths, 2010).
It wasn’t easy to keep the ADHD band all headed in the same direction.
At this point in the story, the band members appear to scatter without a plan leaving their burned out and unconcerned teacher behind. “His clarinet section was going off in six directions, his percussion section had disappeared. It didn’t bother him.” Another of the many myths is that “[p]eople with ADHD don’t “want” to focus or complete tasks” and “don’t care about consequences” (Tartakovsky, 2011). The image in the minds of listeners is intended to be one of attentionally-impaired teens and tweens running wild and unsupervised because they have so beaten down their teacher that he can’t wait to get away from them.
The myth of contagion is added to the mix with the introduction of the assistant principal who gets stuck like a malfunctioning turntable when trying to say “special needs children”. Guy asks if she has “some kind of tic” to which she replies, “It’s only when I’m around special needs chi—— for special needs chi—–for special needs chi——.”
Guy continues his clever narration with, “[s]o we wandered around, me and the ADHD band, and it occurred to me that most of the people I saw in Washington were special needs people, and the Congress is designed for verbally aggressive listening-impaired people, and that months go by and nothing gets done….” Verbally aggressive and listening-impaired. So that’s what people with ADHD/ADD are like. Right. They are as bad a Congress.
In his final conversation with the assistant principal, Guy tries to strike an enlightened tone saying, “They’re just children. We’re grown-ups. We all have special needs.”
Principal: You don’t understand, Mr. Noir. We have programs for these people.
Noir: Fine. But just call them children.
Principal: But they’re not. They’re special needs chi— —–special needs chi—– special needs chi—— special needs chi—— special needs chi——(FADES)
Noir: I didn’t bonk her on the head. I left her there in the bushes and the ADHD band went off to the Smithsonian and the kids were going in sixteen different directions…
To me, this was the most distressing part of the bit. These people. These other not normal people who need programs. As Carl Sherman (2003) states,
[t]here’s nothing shameful about having attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) — or at least there shouldn’t be. But in our society, people who have the disorder are seen as somehow “defective,” despite ample evidence suggesting that ADDers can be just as competent, personable, and skilled as “normal” people (para. 1).
In the same piece, Stephen Hinshaw remarks that
…many people still don’t believe that ADHD is a bona fide medical condition.They see it as an excuse for sloppiness or laziness. The fact that ADHD symptoms appear to come and go,depending on the situation, only feeds the doubters’ contempt. They say, or think, things like, “Why can’t you pull it together? You’re fine with certain friends — how come you can’t sit down and do your homework?” (Sherman, 2003, para. 3).
As Hinshaw notes, one of the most dangerous aspects of this constellation of negative beliefs is that people will internalize them. “…I’ve gotten to know hundreds of children who have ADHD, and I’ve heard many say things like, ‘I just can’t make it,’ or ‘I’m just not cut out for school.’ The stigma has so poisoned their motivation that they’ve given up even trying to be successful” (Sherman, 2003, para. 7). According to Hinshaw, another also damaging response to the cultural stereotypes is denial. “You consider the stereotypes of ADHD and think, ‘That’s not me.’ You want nothing to do with such a shameful identity” (Sherman, 2003, para.8). In addition to self-hatred and denial, one of the real effects is the avoidance of getting appropriate treatment. As Jonathan D. Carroll (2012) suggests, social stigma associated with ADD/ADHD can delay or even prevent appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
If you’ve stuck with me this far through all the quotes, citations, and academic arguments, you may just be ready to smack me around for being a smug liberal (criticizing one of my own no less) who can’t take a joke and is only interested in censoring hardworking radio show hosts. This has nothing to do with my sense of humor (I have one), or my politics (I refuse to apologize for being progressive), or my profession (I won’t apologize for being a psychologist either). Here’s an exercise for you: Try placing some other vulnerable group in place of “ADD” in the name of the band. Let’s say it’s a remedial band for autistic children who are then depicted as spinning and hand-flapping while simultaneously achieving great feats of memory or mathematics. The backlash would be swift and biting. Then why is it OK to use ADD/ADHD? Because people still don’t believe it’s real and that it causes real suffering for those it touches. I wonder how many of the kids in the real band from Oak Hill Middle School are living with diagnoses?
It’s always disappointing when someone you enjoy being entertained by, someone you’ve long considered to be enlightened and intelligent, does something insensitive and hurtful. It’s even more disappointing when the person you see getting hurt is just 10 years old. As my daughter listened to the piece, I could see the wheels in her head turning. By the time it was half over, she said, “they are making fun of people with ADHD aren’t they?” I said, “Yes they are. Do you want me to write a letter to let them know how you feel?” She said, “Yes, please.”
If only Mr. Keillor had taken Guy’s statement that “They’re just children. We’re grown-ups. We all have special needs” to heart before making kids like mine feel even more isolated than they already do.
Prairie Home Productions, LLC
611 Frontenac Place
St. Paul, MN 55104
You can also make your opinion known to your local public radio affiliate.
Carroll, J. D. (2012). Stereotyping ADD and ADHD. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://adhdefcoach.com/2012/05/02/stereotyping-add-and-adhd/
Common myths, misconceptions, and stigmas surrounding ADHD. (2010). retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20434636,00.html
Sherman, C. (2003). Overcoming the ADHD stigma. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/2003.html
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). 9 myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about ADHD. retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/06/24/9-myths-misconceptions-and-stereotypes-
The fourth of the Twelve Principles of Attitudinal Healing outlined by Jampolsky (2000) is that we can let go of the past and the future. Jampolsky’s argument is that “We experience inner peace when we let go of our attachments to the painful past and the fearful future and learn to live in the present” (p. 101). That sounds nice. It has also felt completely out of reach for me for most of my life. In reflecting on my experience of depressive illness, I have spent more of my 46 years thinking about things that have already happened or haven’t happened yet than I have about what’s going on right now. I value being contemplative concerning where I’ve been and where I’m going; but, when I’m acutely ill, I move from contemplative to obsessively negative spending the vast majority of my mental energy reliving what I perceive to be the horrors of past events or predicting with absolute certainty the doom to come. Since I am a nerdy data junky, I will illustrate with a fake frequency distribution. When my mood is depressed, the distribution of my thoughts is bi-modal; it has two peaks. One peak is characterized by rumination, guilt, and regret while the other represents anxiety, pessimism, and negativism. Irritability and anger show up on both sides. Time spent living in the moment is brief at best when I’m down. As a result, I have very few memories from childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of truly being in the present. Most of what I have of that time is a broad, expanse of negative emotion.
According to Jampolsky, “…most of our disillusionment and weariness is caused by the judgements we have against ourselves and others. These judgements have their roots in our unforgiven past, and they poison our capacity to experience directly what is occurring here and now” (p. 102). In his book Just One Thing (2011) Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson makes a similar argument saying that “[w]hen we go into the future, we worry and plan. When we go into the past, we resent and regret. Threads of fear are woven into the mental tapestries of past and future” (p. 173). I realize only now how true that is.
I’ve spent a lot of time poisoned by judgements of past and future that are so compelling and distracting that they suck the life out of simply living. As Jampolsky puts it “…we believe more strongly in rejection and pain than we do in love and oneness” (p. 102). Hanson in Buddah’s Brain (2009) suggests that humans have a built in bias toward negativity with a preference for avoiding rather than approaching. This bias has an evolutionary basis in terms of survival. “The negativity bias fosters or intensifies other unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and it exaggerates future obstacles” (Hanson, 2009, Kindle edition, loc. 767). In Buddah’s Brain, Hanson refers to what we do mentally as a “simulator” that produces experiences just as powerful or even more so than events that are taking place right now. They can be played over and over again allowing themselves to be perpetually re-experienced and their memory pathways to be strengthened. Neutral and even pleasant moments don’t get that kind of attention.
What’s the solution? For Jampolsky, “[o]ne of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is to decide that we are no longer willing to remain stuck in the past or to be fearful of the future” (p. 105). The shift is in the direction of being present in the current moment regardless of its pleasantness, neutrality, or darkness far more than dwelling in the past or attempting to control the future. I am very limited in my ability to do this at present but I take heart in the simplicity of Hanson’s suggestion in Just One Thing (2011) “[l]ook again at the thin slice of time that is the present. In this moment: are you basically okay?…The answer is almost certainly yes” (p. 173).
One of my daughters tends to be somewhat fearful and her anxiety can sometimes be overwhelming for her. Her sentences frequently begin with “But, what if….” We were riding together a couple days ago when she seemed to become very anxious. While she has never been a bold rider, she has never been timid either. When I asked her what was going on, she said she thought the horse was going to “freak out”. Meanwhile, the horse, 22-year-old Quarter Horse Coco, was standing quietly in the middle of the arena waiting to go to work. I first tried to invalidate the claim that Coco was about to go through the roof. That didn’t work. My daughter argued that she had “freaked” before which was marginally true but the event had not resulted in a bad outcome and happened more than six months ago. She didn’t fall off and was actually proud of how she’d stayed on. I reminded her of this but she was so consumed by imagining disaster that she just couldn’t see an alternative.
I was on our horse Cooper who at 16.1 hands towers over 14.2 hand Coco and began circling her as we talked. I moved Cooper a bit closer to Coco with each circle so that, much to her annoyance (she is a mare after all and, to Cooper’s amusement, was threatening to bite his face off for having the audacity to violate her space), she had to move out of Cooper’s way and begin walking with us. When she stopped, I had Cooper herd her back into motion. Slowly, I got them both walking and distracted Olivia with a discussion of her current favorite iPod app Plants vs. Zombies. After a couple of laps around the arena, I asked her how Coco was feeling now. She said she was fine. I asked her how she was feeling. She pulled Coco up and said, “I’m OK.” What changed? While it hasn’t sunk in yet, she realized he was actually OK. In time, she may even realize that she was stuck in her own internal simulator.
“Noticing that you’re actually all right right now is not laying a positive attitude over your life like a pretty veil. Instead, you are knowing a simple but profound fact: In this moment I am all right. You are sensing the truth in your body, deeper than fear, that it is breathing and living and okay” (Hanson, 2011, pp. 174-175). Bad things have happened in the past. Sometimes they are even our own fault. Bad things will happen in the future. But, most of the time, we are at any given moment … good. Even when we feel bad, we need to remember that we bounce, we learn, and we grow. We are capable of developing the ability to step out of the simulator and refocus on just one thing. Now.
Tonight, I was feeling tired and worn down by a long week and an oppressive load of work to accomplish over the weekend which includes: trying to solve a vexing administrative problem, grading the last 10 of 27 Social Psychology exams, 37 papers for Movies & Madness class, science fair data analysis with Emma, getting the kids to and from Saturday dance classes, Emma’s friends coming over to work on Model UN stuff, laundry that still isn’t sorted from last weekend, new laundry, groceries, Ian’s parents, the horses… I admit it; I’m officially overwhelmed. I got home and all I could imagine doing was laying on the couch so I did. But that just made me feel worse. I had two choices, admit defeat and go to bed or get back up.
I started with cleaning my truck. My husband teases me that for the first few years of our marriage, the gifts I asked for were all somehow related to cleaning. His favorite of these gifts is the vacuum which is specifically designed to be used for taking dust and dirt off the horses. Imagine a shop vac with a really powerful but quiet motor. I don’t know why but I clean when I’m stressed. By the time I was done with the interior of my truck, I was cold but feeling better and I was determined to avoid getting sucked back into a funk. I walked into the house and told the girls to get their coats. We proceeded to pick up a library book for Emma, get the outside of the truck almost as clean as the inside at the car wash, and get movies and video games for the weekend. This meant making a loop around half the township.
It has become our habit to listen to music in the truck when we are going anywhere. Sometimes this just involves Emma playing whatever was on Glee last week (I don’t think I will ever forgive them for doing Red Solo Cup). There are days, like today, where the music takes on an entirely different purpose. We pick songs that pick us up not just because of what they say but also because we sing them together.
So here’s our playlist from tonight’s neighborhood jaunt:
P!nk F**kin’ Perfect (the video does have triggers)
I really love it that these are songs my girls have chosen. They all have empowering things to say about standing your ground and valuing yourself. We pulled in the drive singing Mean at the top of our lungs. The song wasn’t over when we got in the garage so we just sat there singing until it ended. When it did end, I said, “We’re weird.” Without missing a beat, Emma said, “We’re not weird. We’re amazing.” She’s right.
When it did end, I said, “We’re weird.” Without missing a beat, Emma said, “We’re not weird. We’re amazing.” She’s right.
Other favorites we belt out on longer drives or just when the spirit moves us:
Bruno Mars The Lazy Song
Gin Wigmore Don’t Stop
Grouplove Tongue Tied
Nicki Minaj Fly & Super Bass (Emma raps… No really, she does)
Adele Rumor Has It & Set Fire to the Rain
Oh Land We Turn It Up
OK Go White Knuckles & Here It Goes Again
Travie McCoy Billionaire
Foster the People Pumped Up Kicks
Squeeze Black Coffee in Bed & Cool for Cats
Things they sing with their dad in his car:
Anything by the Beatles
Warren Zevon Werewolves of London
Queen Bohemian Rhapsody (Glee is to blame for them learning the lyrics)
They used to sing these when they were little:
Fiona Apple Extraordinary Machine
Sheryl Crow Soak Up the Sun & Steve McQueen